Pour yourself a nice drink and prepare to learn more about Turkey than you ever dreamed you would know. This post has a lot of very informative links and lots of pictures so make sure you have time to get through it.
“If you get the chance, go to Istanbul”. That is what a friend told me.Well, I got the chance and I went. Susie and I arrived at the Skopje airport bright and early to begin our adventure. As we were approaching the airport in Istanbul, our pilot comes on and said, “There is a lot of traffic at the airport so we have to stay in the air a little longer, probably about 40 minutes.” We were watching the map and the pilot was making rather large circles in the air about 200 miles from Istanbul and then he went and made a couple of circles above Istanbul. Seemed strange but we aren’t pilots so we trusted him to do what was right and proper. Well, when we landed and turned on our telephones, they started going crazy. Our friend Cindy was trying to get hold of us as was Goce, our safety and security manager. “Where are you? A bomb went off about half an hour ago in the square by the Blue Mosque.” We responded that we had just disembarked and were going through Passport Control and Customs. We were told to notify him as soon as we got to our hotel. (once we knew what happened, we were afraid he would tell us to turn around and come home) It was at this point that we realized it may not have been air traffic congestion but rather trying to decide whether or not planes should be landing–was this an isolated incident or were we all in imminent danger? It was a suicide bomber who had taken ten German citizens with him and injured 15 more people. Very frightening. The bomber had targeted a large group of tourists, in this case Germans. Moments before the explosion, the tour guide realized what was happening and managed to save a few of the tourists when he saw the bomber getting ready to depress the plunger by yelling for them to run. Goce has told us to stay away from large groups of people. This incident brought that warning home for Susie and I. We avoided large groups like the plague.
So we found our driver and headed to the hotel. It is located close to the waterfront and the Golden Horn. Once we got there we learned we were also very, very close to the site of the tragedy, as the hotel is at the bottom of the hill where the Blue Mosque is located. The hotel had felt the impact of the blast. From the upper terrace of our hotel we could see the Blue Mosque quite clearly. That was scary for about 10 seconds. We are Peace Corps volunteers and we can handle anything.
We talked to our desk clerk about how to get around and what attractions he thought we must absolutely see and where were some good places to eat etc. We had been told by a number of people to make sure we caught at least one dance show. Therefore, the first thing we did was book a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus which included traditional dancing–yes there would even be belly dancing.
Then we started out to check out the area. For those of you who might want to know, the area we were primarily exploring is called the Sultanahmet, which is also the official name of the Blue Mosque. This area is on the very tip of the peninsula that Istanbul is located on and is known as “The Old City”. Our hotel was no more than 200 meters from most of the places that we wanted to visit. As close as our hotel was we walked on average 5 – 7 km each day. So we were definitely worn out by the time the trip was over.
It became obvious to us that there were very few tourists around as these two silver haired ladies walking up and down the streets of Istanbul drew the attention of what seemed like every single merchant we walked past. They wanted us to eat at their establishment, or check out their goods–carpets, clothes, jewelry, lamps–you name it, you could probably find it there. It felt like we had won a popularity contest and we were the most popular people in Istanbul. The truth was than many tourists were back in their hotels, trying to book flights out of there and canceling reservations right and left. Since we were hungry, we stopped at a small place and ate a typical late lunch and then went back to the hotel to try to communicate with our families–we had sent emails letting them know we were indeed in Istanbul and were safe, but needed to have visual contact with a select few. We had a terrible time getting through and suspected that lines were clogged with other people also trying to get through and getting out of the area.
At the appointed time, our “cruise” director picked us up and took us down to the waterfront where we boarded a dinner cruise ship. Somehow we managed to be seated right next to the dance floor. Front row seats so to speak. We had some lovely Sufi music to listen to while waiting for the floor show to begin. The waiters came around talking to all of us to find out where we were from and then to our delight brought national flags to our table to indicate our country of origin. They had trouble with Susie and I because we are Americans and had come from Macedonia. They decided to honor both our country of service and of origin. The other people at our table were from Saudi Arabia and simply delightful people. There were probably 125 people on the boat from 17 or 18 different nations. The floor show began with a whirling dervish which was just beautiful and exotic. I wanted to get up and dance with him. Following that was a traditional bridal dance which I have seen a variation of here in the Albanian/Muslim part of Macedonia. It involves painting henna on the hands. The final part of the program was a belly dancer. She managed to keep going for 20 minutes! She was phenomenal. We did not get back to the hotel until after midnight which is so far past my normal bedtime it isn’t funny. We really had a phenomenal time, though, while a huge rain storm raged outside. It stopped just in time to disembark.
Morning dawned and we decided it was time to get an overview of the city so we planned to go on a double decker, sight-seeing bus and travel all over the city. But first we got stopped by a merchant we had promised the night before that we would stop the next day to see his wares. He was selling carpets but did not pressure us. This is where we met Cihan. Do you know how many knots are in a good carpet per square inch versus an ordinary one? Do you know how long it can take to make them? Do you know what a Kilim is? Do you know that rugs can be different colors depending on the angle from which you view them? Can you identify the signature on a rug? Can you tell what part of the country a rug comes from based on its design? Well, we learned all of that and saw many, many beautiful carpets of many different sizes. We each ended up splurging and buying carpets. I bought two–both fairly small but bigger than a prayer rug. And there is a whole other story to the carpet buying venture which will be in the next post.
So now we are finally off on our city tour. We saw many historical places and got a good idea of the size of this city–20 million people! We went across the Bosphorus Strait to Asia–but I’ve lived in Asia so it was no big deal for me. We got a good overview of the city and knew where we wanted to start when we finished the tour and ate a good lunch. Lunch finished, back to where we started so we could go inside the Blue Mosque. The visitor entrance to the mosque was not well marked so a very nice gentleman showed us the direction to the entrance. We had to have our heads covered and to remove our shoes. Now I’m only wearing one sock–the other foot has a brace on it and the boot won’t close with both the brace and a sock. I’m wearing my high boots to act as an additional brace for my ankle on my doctor’s advice. So with my head covered and toes sticking out on one foot, I head into the Blue Mosque. It is one of the very few mosques in the world that has six minarets. It is utterly amazing. We had to hurry through as prayer time was rapidly approaching.
So when we left the mosque, the gentleman who helped us find our way into the mosque was there to help us when we came out. He even helped me get my boots on. “Could I show you my shop?” Um, sure–he was nice to us, we’ll be nice to him. Turns out he has a rug shop. Aaarrrggghhh! Please come in for some tea. Okay. Susie bailed on me and headed back to the hotel. They showed me more beautiful carpets and told me more about the kinds of dyes that are used. Pomegranate for the reds, indigo for the blues, sage for the greens. Okay! Here I am with these two men, in the upstairs of a store. I’ve just had a glass of tea and then they start offering me a glass of wine. This is a country that is 99% Muslim and they were offering me wine? I decided it was time to get out of there! Thank you very much but I think I need to go check on my friend. She was not feeling well and may need me to get her some medicine or something. I hot-footed it out of there! It didn’t feel right.
We headed out for dinner and decided to take Bananagrams with us. Since we had had a late lunch we weren’t very hungry so we opted for a bowl of soup. Then we cleared the table and played a game of Bananagrams. We had all the wait staff surrounding our table watching us and one of them even offered to be a “referee”. It was great fun. Bananagrams is a game we both play with our students so we have multiple copies of the game and it travels with us wherever we go and it doesn’t take up much space.
Day three: We planned to do Hagia Sophia and Topkapi to include the Harem. The pictures pretty much say it all. Amazing! The opulence of both these places is incredible. You have to wonder how the descendants of the Sultan feel about losing all of these riches and are any of them currently living in Turkey.
Day Four: Bazaars. There are three main bazaars in Istanbul. One is right behind the Blue Mosque, one is the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and then there is the Grand Bazaar. To say it is sensory overload is an understatement. It is just vendor after vendor after vendor. All of them wanting to help you spend your money –and that is exactly how they say it. “Hey sweetheart, let me help you spend your money!” And don’t call me sweetheart!
To finish off our trip we had been told to make sure we didn’t miss the Basilica Cistern. It is underground and just unbelievable. The technology it took to build this is just more than I can fathom.
So long Istanbul. I need so much more time to explore this magical city. I will have to come back when I have more time.